Dec 4, 2012

In chess, you want to be thinking many steps ahead. GPS helps us anticipate the turns or highway exits. Premier League players pass to where their teammates are running. This post begins to explore an idea for organizational communication that I’ve been pondering of late. It’s half baked. Help me think through this — add your comments below.

Walking along the concourse that connects Duke University Hospital to the older clinic buildings, I’ve been fascinated by the construction outside (Duke Medicine Pavilion, the Trent Semans Medical Education Building, renovations to the old power plant, and more). Lately, I’ve noticed that new concrete curbs for a repositioned access drive seem to run smack into a corral holding large oxygen tanks and other gas lines. That seems awfully narrow, I think, but I bet there’s a plan I’m not seeing. I can only come back tomorrow to see what’s changed. I have to watch progress as it unfolds. (Or, neuroscience tells us, as it unfolded microseconds ago. Read this fascinating New Yorker profile of David Eagleman.)

What if there were a way for me to know what I’ll be seeing from the concourse tomorrow?

Routines, and guiding

When Anna and Malia were toddlers, they insisted on being told the day’s plan. Their growing minds wanted to know what to expect in this big and dangerous world, even if the plan was the same plan as the day before. Even because the plan was the same; repetition builds synapses, right? Oliver is like this now, asking a question over and over an over. “Dad, can I hold the green Tic Tac box?” So Erin taught me to forecast the places we’d be going, the people we’d be seeing, and the routine we’d go through to end the evening: take a bath, put on pajamas, brush your teeth, read some books, sing la-la-la. The family joke is that I can never remember the words to Hush, Little Baby. Take a look at the lyrics: that song is a list of what’s going to happen.

On the days that Oliver comes with me to Durham, I tell him when we’re about to get to the part of the Durham Freeway that will give us a brief glimpse down Fulton Street toward Duke University Medical Center. “Look for the helicopter on top of the hospital,” I say. For the first week, he couldn’t find it. But this week? He’s able to anticipate where to look, and he sees the silhouette of the helicopter against the morning sky. “I see it, dad!”

As a college junior and senior, I was a resident assistant in the dormitories of John Carroll University. In one of the orientation sessions to train us for this job, the director had us pair up, with one person donning a blindfold and the other person instructed to guide the sightless one out of the building and through the campus. This is a common team-building exercise to teach trust, communication, using other senses, describing the world around us, and keeping each other out of harm’s way. “The steps are five feet ahead. We’ll be going down. I want you to reach out with your left hand and grab the railing. How are you feeling?”

Small just, just ahead

I’ve been thinking a lot about these experiences, and wondering how they might help me be a better organizational communicator. Milestones and big changes and annual events are a must to communicate, but what about the smaller details? Since the Back to the Blog event a few months ago, I’ve been wondering how blogs might be better used in communicating the “small just and just ahead” — that is, the small things that have just happened, and what’s next to come.

At Duke, I created the MedicineNews blog for the Department of Medicine so we could have a river of news to share the activities of our department’s nearly 2000 individuals — physicians, residents, research fellows, support staff, Nobel laureate — and spotlight funding opportunities and upcoming presentations. Blogs are used by countless organizations, of course, usually for their news releases and product announcements. I suspect most organizational blogs are used to record what’s happened rather than what’s about to happen, the approved messages or big events.

Back in 2005, I wrote How to persuade a business to blog

Meet with the CEO or the head of the marketing department and say this: I asked one of the employees to tell me about all the interesting things that happened at the company this week. Look what she found! This is great information, and we could really use this to reach some new customers. It’s fresh and useful information, with a conversational tone, and it really gives a glimpse into the life of our company. And I really like how the talents of our employees can give a human element to our business. You know, this would make a great weblog on our company website.

Last week, I came across this even shorter advice: Do things, tell people

We know that there’s unprecedented access to information and data and sensory stimulation today. But does that mean we have the information we need? Not always. Dave Winer has written about this time of information poverty. I particularly like the way Dave narrates his development work. As a user of his software (see my sugarcubes linkblog and Storyblogging world outline — my lack of coding and scripting and server setup skills often makes me feel like I’m blindfolded — his worknotes give me the small just and just ahead that make me feel safe and guided.

As board chairman of ScienceOnline, a new and small nonprofit, and communications director within Duke Medicine, a large and complex health system, I’m looking for ways to narrate more. I’m starting to talk to my scio partners and my Duke colleagues about how providing streams of smaller news bits might actually help our communities feel more informed and connected.

My concourse walking left me wondering. But, whether or not I know how the service driveway will be routed may not really affect my life or work. There’s so much sensory stimulation coming at us each day, and clearly our brains filter away most of the details. Would having more bits of information help us live and work differently? I think so. Would the rule of reciprocation apply; would giving more information to employees get them to give more attention to the organization and its leaders and their initiatives?

Actively sharing and reviewing and evaluating information about the world around us helps children learn, the blinded navigate and teams coalesce.

I’ve scheduled time in the week ahead to revise my Department of Medicine communications plan. I’m thinking it should be renamed the communicating plan.

I’m ending this post now. I’m still formulating these ideas, but the family wants to go get a Christmas tree.

Anton Zuiker

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